Bright Lights Film Journal

Average Nobodies: The Dark Knights of Goodfellas

Scorsese’s wiseguy gangsters as modern-day knights errant

In medieval times there were no countries and few strong kings. Monks hid in fortress monasteries while marauding knights brutalized the peasants. Most medieval people lived out their short lifetimes within a radius of fifty miles of their birthplace. Ninety percent of the peasantry was stuck in a serfdom that offered few ways out. For the luckier warlords and knights, a precarious scheme of loyalties and duties held their operations and alliances together. The Catholic Church wholeheartedly participated in and oversaw the entire feudal enterprise.

The difference between the Dark Ages and the world of Scorsese’s movie Goodfellas is that the Law replaces the Church to keep society’s predators at bay. Like the Church, the Law protects the people while preserving a shady relationship with the gangster/warlords. And Goodfellas underscores the Law’s ineffectuality in relation to the mob. Police and FBI keep tabs on the gangsters but cannot stop them. The Law is irrelevant to a point. Inevitably, the gangsters get careless or are informed on by their colleagues.

Not that the same relationship between the Law and the Mafia is ignored by other gangster movies. Medievalism is inherent in the workings of the Mafia. What distinguishes Goodfellas from The Godfather trilogy, The Valachi Papers, Scarface (both versions), Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Mobsters, Bugsy, Lucky Luciano, Lepke, Murder, Inc., and Crazy Joe, is that these other films look at the mob from the top down. Their action is operatic, concentrating on the power struggles, the rise and fall of gangsters. Goodfellas remains in the Mafia’s middle layers, concentrating on the knights and an occasional lord. Based on a true story, the movie resists the “celebrity don” game; John Gotti is not mentioned, nor is the Gambino family, and there is a solitary reference to Joey Gallo. The gangsters do not pretend to be driven by anything more than a natural viciousness, a need to have a good time, and a propensity to bully people. Henry (Ray Liotta), Tommy (Joe Pesci), and Jimmy (Robert DeNiro), the “goodfellas” of the movie, are without ideals and hopes; they just do what they want to do. Jimmy loves to steal; Henry doesn’t want to be like anyone else, he doesn’t want to be a schnook; and Tommy, the most unsettling character in recent film history, cannot be controlled by anyone.

Director Martin Scorsese takes us inside the wiseguy’s vile nature and disabuses us of our romantic concepts of the Mafia. He takes us so deep that we lose all familiar reference points: morality, religion, law. The movie’s first scene starts the process. Our dark knights are driving outside New York City when Henry hears a thumping noise and pulls off the road. The three get out of the car and Henry opens the trunk. Inside, a bloodied man, moaning, is wrapped in several tablecloths. Tommy draws out a butcher knife as if it was a sword and repeatedly thrusts it into the man, then Jimmy shoots three bullets into him. The sight and sounds of Tommy’s thrusts shock and repel us; it’s almost too much. But we are shocked into a fundamental understanding: we are dealing with brutal men on every level of life. To unsettle us on another level, Henry declares matter-of-factly in a voiceover that he always wanted to be a gangster. His life’s dream is connected to the brutal murder and is not repelled in the least by Tommy’s action. His values, like the movie’s opening credits, are mobile, in flux, good for today but not necessarily tomorrow. “If we ran out of money,” Henry happily declares, “we just went out and hijacked a truck.” He sneers at the ordinary person, the working stiff, who doesn’t have the balls to take what he wants. The closest the wiseguys come to enunciating a set of values occurs when Jimmy tells the teenage Henry to remember two things: never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut. These are the basic values of self- and Family-preservation. Henry lives up to these value right up to the time he believes Jimmy will whack him.

The most medieval figure, however, is the local crime boss, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). A big man, he runs a careful, anachronistic operation. He does not own a telephone. Messages are relayed to him secondhand. He eschews the big conference (in how many Mafia movies do we see the Mafia bosses get together?), preferring one-to-one meetings because he doesn’t want people to know what he’s being told or what he’s saying. In the fashion of a feudal lord, he receives tribute in the form of a percentage from every heist performed in his territory. His life-style differs negligibly from his underlings, just as a medieval warlord obtained only a degree more creature comforts than his knights and even peasant had. Paulie should be cautious. Phones can be tapped. During a conference, somebody could be “wired.” Ostentatious living draws the IRS’s unwanted attention. The less the Mob conforms to contemporary social values, the greater its chance of survival. In this vein, when Henry and Jimmy travel to Florida (going beyond their 50-mile radius), it results in a substantial prison term for them and Paulie. In fact, Henry’s prison term causes his falling out with Paulie and the Mafia.

The gangster’s attitude toward women in Goodfellas is also, well – medieval! Women provide children and random companionship but are essentially inconsequential to the Family business. Saturday nights are reserved by the goodfellas for their wives, and Fridays, for the mistresses. Henry’s wife (Lorraine Bracco) temporarily rebels against this reality and threatens to shoot Henry if he continues seeing his mistress. Henry abandons her until Paulie requests that he return. Divorces are frowned upon; one simply cannot get outside the Mafia circle. Curiously, Henry’s wife shares part of the movie’s narration, possibly to underscore how an outsider (she is Jewish) can be drawn deeply into the material seductiveness of the Mafia life.

Then there’s the Mafia version of grand knighthood: “being made,” reserved for pure Italians. Henry and Jimmy cannot be made men because they are half-Irish. “Being made” makes one untouchable among one’s fellow knights. Tommy is killed because he murdered a made gangster (the man in the trunk), a violation of the code; ironically, Tommy’s execution occurs at the apparent ceremony for his own “being made.” The Mafia, as is well known, likes its executions to convey meaning within the brotherhood, in the absence of any written law.

At the end of Goodfellas, Henry mentions that virtually no record of his life can be found. His driver’s license and social security card are forgeries; he has never voted. Like medieval man, the only proof that he lived can be found in birth records (or, for Henry, a rap sheet). Enough to make one nostalgic for times when there was no bureaucracy and government bothering us, forgetting that few people were left untroubled in the Middle Ages. This lack of official identity aids Henry’s bid to disappear in the witness protection program. Not that he is very happy. He’s now just another schnook trying to make it legitimately. In a sense, he has died and gone to suburbia.